Deciphering Your Gut Bacteria with Melbourne Museum's Dr Johanna Simkin

Thursday April 04, 2019 Written by emily naismith, photography by heather lighton

SJ x Melbourne Museum

Did you know there are more microbes on you than there are stars in the Milky Way? Or that about two kilograms of your entire body mass is microbes? All true – and these aren’t even the most interesting things we can say about the little guys. To help us understand microbes a little better, the Melbourne Museum has launched Gut Feelings, a new exhibition exploring the link between the gut and the mind. Ahead of its opening, we asked exhibition curator Dr Johanna Simkin about all things microbial.

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What are microbes and where are they in our bodies? Microbes are tiny living organisms that live on and in you. They include bacteria, fungi, viruses and also some other weird things like archaea and protozoa. It helps to think of yourself as a doughnut: your mouth is the top of a doughnut, your butt is the bottom, and inside of you is just this tube. So even your gut is technically touching the outside world, and microbes are everywhere: in your eyes, nose, mouth, ears, all over your skin, genitals – they’re everywhere.

How are the gut and mind are linked? It’s a completely weird and foreign concept to most people, but they’re actually physically connected by this amazing thing called the ‘vagus nerve’. It runs all the way from the base of your brain, right down to your gut. It acts like this super highway for information between the brain and the gut. In fact, a lot of the signals are coming from your gut to your brain, which is always surprising for people.

What do our microbes say about who we are and how we live? They say a lot! When you’re born, your biggest microbe seeding event is at birth – whether you’re born vaginally or by caesarean. Then as you start eating solid foods, you start introducing more microbes, and by the time you’re about four, your adult microbiome mix is basically set up. But then, throughout life, the things you do can influence them. This includes whether you’re getting a good night’s sleep or exercising or if you’re eating whole foods. Other things are out of your control, such as genetics or stressful events.

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How long does it take to positively influence our microbiome? Not long. You can improve your microbiome in as little as 24 hours, just by eating well for that day, so it’s kind of empowering. It’s not one of those far-off, hard to reach goals. You could eat something good right now and already start to improve it.

Tell us about the live science project you’re running as part of the exhibition. It’s a collaboration between the Doherty Institute and the University of Melbourne. We’re encouraging 1000 visitors to give us a little spit sample. Their spit contains microbes and we’re using this to make a map of Victoria’s microbiome. So we’re looking to see if there’s any difference between microbiome diversity between your kombucha-loving hipsters in Melbourne’s north compared to your south-side latte crowd. The data will also contribute to the university’s ongoing research.

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What are you ultimately trying to find out through this experiment? Our science partners are so excited about this because it’s so rare to be able to look at a healthy population; usually they’re looking at people with diseases or other conditions. Basically, we don’t know what the microbiome of Victorians looks like, and Melbourne is actually known to be the allergy capital of the world. It would be really interesting if our microbiomes were really different from other places in the world. We’re also interested to see if there are patterns in location, or patterns in variables like whether you drink coffee or tea, have cats or dogs, how much time you spend exercising and things like that. We don’t know if this will make an impact on our microbe results, so this is actual genuine research that the scientists are really keen to hear the answers to. It could have real implications for all Victorians.

How can people participate? They can come to the museum on our selected donation days, which will be on our website. When they arrive we’ll run them through the collection process. Then we get them to fill out a questionnaire and give us their spit sample, and then it goes off to be processed. (People with privacy concerns needn’t worry: we’re working with the University of Melbourne, so all the ethics and confidentiality is up to their very rigorous standards.)

Are those results coming back throughout the exhibition? Exactly! That’s the beauty of this. This installation is a real world-first; it will grow throughout the length of the exhibition. Month by month we’re adding fresh data to the microbe map; we’ll hopefully be watching patterns emerge more or less in real-time. It’s quite exciting because it usually takes years of research before you see a publication, so this is a really nice way to bring the research world and the people who need that information – the public – together.

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This slightly gross, super-interesting chat was brought to you by our friends at Museums Victoria.

Gut Feelings is open daily from 10am-5pm at Melbourne Museum until February 2, 2020.

SJ x Melbourne Museum